We may not see the connection, but what we eat and use on our skin influences our health, the health of the Earth and most importantly, the health of the ocean. The cleaning products we use in our homes, kitchens and bathrooms may cause environmental damage and pollution if they contain harsh, toxic chemicals. Everything we do impacts the environment, even if we cannot see the immediate effects of our actions. My behaviour as a consumer is always determined by the impact of my choices on the marine environment. With The Great Barrier Reef in the Australian political and environmental spotlight from the recent mass coral bleaching event that has devastated reef communities in northern Queensland, what we are allowing to enter the ocean becomes a critical matter. There are many factors outside of our control, but there are also many other factors within it, and we must strive to adopt these neutral or constructive practices, rather than destructive ones.
You may have heard or read about the recent mass coral bleaching event in The Great Barrier Reef in northern Queensland, Australia. With a federal election looming, the fate of the reef is in our hands – to conserve and protect, or to destroy. My position on the reef is that it is a valuable environmental, economic and cultural resource, and we should be doing everything we can to protect it, especially from human impact. All Australians should, and must, hold this natural wonder dear to their hearts. The Great Barrier Reef has enormous intrinsic value, and must be managed sustainably.
There is some controversy surrounding the facts of this mass coral bleaching event, with scientists, government bodies, universities, interest groups and environmentalists reporting different percentages in the rate of coral bleaching and the locations where bleaching is occurring.
In this article, Russell Reichelt, Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) said the severity of the impact had been “exaggerated”, maps and surveys have been “distorted” and the facts “misrepresented”. However, Reichelt also said: “This is a frightening enough story with the facts, you don’t need to dress them up”, which tells me the situation is indeed dire.
I’ve been attempting to tease out the finer points of the matter, but I won’t debate the issue here as it’s too complex. Having said that, The Great Barrier Reef is threatened by human impact, and we must do something now to ensure future generations can enjoy its beauty.
The process of evolution has done, and will continue to do, its work, breaking down existing life forms and building new ones, but letting the reef die by our own hands is irresponsible and disrespectful to the mystery of Life, and the marine organisms that rely on the reef for survival.
What causes coral bleaching and death?
Coral reef organisms may be killed by factors outside of our control, including natural disasters, but we are concerned here with factors that are in our control, those created by human impact.
The main cause of coral bleaching is heat stress, which is caused by high sea temperatures. A one degree Celsius increase in temperature over a period of one month is enough to trigger a bleaching event. If high temperatures persist for periods of eight weeks or more, corals begin to die. An increase in natural disasters is one consequence of climate change.
Climate change has been identified as one of the greatest threats to the long-term health of The Great Barrier Reef. Scientists know global warming is driving ocean temperatures higher, and causing bleaching events, including the recent mass bleaching event in The Great Barrier Reef.
We don’t realize it, but our modern lifestyles are contributing to anthropogenic climate change. This is why it’s important to assess the impact we make, drastically reduce that impact, choose ethical, environmentally friendly products and services, live simply and give something back to the Earth. This is the reason why I’m happy to embrace voluntary simplicity.
Other factors contributing to coral bleaching include low salinity and poor water quality due to sediment and pollutant run-off. My decision to purchase organically grown foods and avoid processed, packaged foods, is a refusal to indirectly participate in the widespread use of fossil fuel derived pesticides and herbicides in conventional, industrial agriculture, and I like to support small, organic farms.
Pesticide run-off from cropland on the coast of Queensland, Australia enters the ocean and causes coral bleaching in The Great Barrier Reef. Run-off from fossil fuel derived fertilizers is a known factor in Crown of Thorns infestations that kill corals.
This is also the reason I go on and on about purchasing beauty products that don’t contain harsh, toxic, potentially carcinogenic chemicals, because the residue from these products that is left on the skin is rinsed off in the shower, washed down the drain, and ultimately enters the marine environment.
What we pour down the drain will enter the ocean
If you live in Australia, you may have seen an advertisement for the effects of cleaning products on aquatic life that regularly aired on television around five years ago. The Stop Torturing Our Aquatic Life advertisement promoted the Earth Choice range of cleaning products (under the Natures Organics label), and the environmental benefits of these products as opposed to conventional ones containing harsh, toxic chemicals. This is one of my favourite commercials, and not just because it features many sentient marine creatures whose lives depend on a healthy, clean, ocean.
The advertisement sends a powerful environmental message that cannot be ignored. It shows these aquatic animals being ‘tortured’ by toxic chemicals in conventional cleaning products. The aim of the advertisement was to “make people stop and think” about where the wastewater (containing this toxic chemical residue) goes after it leaves their home.
This residue gets tipped down the sink, where it enters the drain, the waterways (rivers) and eventually the ocean. This is not something many of us think about. Is it a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ or ‘if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist’.
But this toxic chemical residue does exist, and it has to go somewhere. That’s why it’s important, when choosing household cleaning products, to purchase products without toxic chemicals because they will end up in the ocean and they will affect marine life.
Choose your products wisely. You have incredible power as a consumer to be the transmitter of critical environmental messages. Earth Choice is an option, but I also like Australian made and owned Aware Environmental products.
The active ingredient in the Orange Power range is orange oil, made of the discarded peels from the orange industry in Mildura, Victoria.
The Orange Power range contains no palm oil or palm oil derivatives, so if we choose products from this range, we are also refusing to participate in the destruction of orangutan forest habitat (via deforestation to grow palm oil plantations) and we help save these beautiful primates from extinction (see how easy it is to make a difference).
The Orange Power product range is endorsed by non-profit organization Planet Ark Environmental Foundation, which means all their health and environmental claims must be verified before endorsement. This range also doesn’t contain petrochemicals and the products are not tested on animals.
We can purchase environmentally friendly cleaning products but these will be packaged in plastic. We can make our own cleaning products, but always bear in mind when going home-made, we must purchase the individual ingredients in some form of packaging, which still needs to be disposed of or recycled.
A good, all-purpose cleaner can easily be made at home using ingredients such as lemon juice, vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and essential oils. There are many recipes available – experiment with a few and see which one you like. A micro-fibre cloth and some old-fashioned elbow grease is all you need.
In the ‘Stop Torturing Our Aquatic Life’ commercial, a starfish is used to wash dishes, a stingray is used to clean a shower and an octopus is used to clean the floor, but the purpose of these and other sentient marine creatures is not to ‘mop up’ waste generated in our homes. We need to be aware that everything we pour down the drain will end up in the ocean. Every drop of water is recycled through the Earth, through our bodies, and through the starfish, stingrays and octopuses in the ocean.